The self-enhancement bias

Excerpt from You Can Beat Your Brain (Chapter 17) by David McRaney

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THE MISCONCEPTION: You set attainable goals based on a realistic evaluation of your strengths and weaknesses.

THE TRUTH: You protect unrealistic attitudes about your abilities in order to stay sane and avoid despair.

Take a deep, deep breath.

No, really. Go ahead and take in as much air as you can.

Keep going. Come on, just a little bit more. Okay. Let it out.

Did you feel like you couldn’t quite breathe in as much as you could probably hold? Now take a deep breath and then breathe out as much air as you can. Keep pushing it out. A little more— try to get every last puff out of your body. Okay, grab your breath and look around to see if anyone is calling for paramedics or police.

You may have noticed at some point in your life that it is impossible to completely inflate or deflate your lungs. You don’t have complete control over your body in this regard. Your brain doesn’t trust you with that much responsibility. Most of your organs do their business without any direct input from your whims, and it’s a good thing, too. It would probably be a bad idea to hand the keys to the pancreas over to a person who routinely forgets his phone at restaurants. You are allowed to mess with only a handful of the bazillions of processes swirling and spinning and streaming throughout your body. One of those functions under partial control is breathing, and most of the time you leave it to your automatic systems to handle. Still, when you do take control and do silly things such as hold your breath or try to completely exhale because some book asked you to, there are behavioral safeguards in place to prevent you from popping your alveoli or emptying so much air from your body that the tiny bits collapse and stick together. There is a respiration inhibition module in your brain that prevents you from damaging your lungs with your free will. Not literally, of course, but it is useful to imagine such a thing since the results are the same.

Your body also resists excessive self-doubt. When the giant boot of reality begins to press down on you, a series of defense mechanisms pushes back. Just as your body resists your attempt to empty all the air from your lungs with its respiration inhibition module, you also keep yourself motivated thanks to a sort of despair-inhibition module. It is a pretty complicated piece of mental machinery full of what psychologists call positive illusions. These illusions serve as a system of checks and balances running in the background at all times. Taken together, they form your self-enhancement bias— the rosy glasses through which you see yourself.

Shelley Taylor and Jonathon Brown made positive illusions famous among psychologists with their research on cancer patients in the 1980s. Before them, the widely held assumption in mental health was that the more accurate your perception and cognitions, the happier you became. Such was the mantra of the humanist psychologists— Abraham Maslow and his hierarchy of needs, Carl Rogers and his person-centered therapy. In the 1940s and ’50s, Maslow and Rogers championed a view that preferred to see human beings as something more than just molecules of meat. They felt it was wrong to assume you could approach the mind as a biological machine that could be repaired and improved at the level of its cogs and gears. Instead, they advocated something that still reverberates in the public consciousness today: a holistic approach to mental health. They saw you as a creature with a sense of self and a desire for improvement of that self. To reach that goal you need first to satisfy biological needs, they said, and once your most basic needs are met, your final hurdle is to become the best possible version of yourself. That final goal was called self-actualization, and in that state, they said, you would become completely honest with yourself and others. Rogers called the gap between how you see yourself and how you really are incongruence. He believed that the more you moved toward congruence, toward matching reality with your subjective experience, the happier you would become. You would no longer lie about your abilities or hide your shortcomings, but instead would be a totally open book during both introspection and conversation.

The idea that people would be happier if they maintained a constant state of realism is a beautiful sentiment, but Taylor and Brown found just the opposite. They presented a new theory that suggested that well-being came from unrealistic views of reality. They said you reduce the stress of terminal illness or a high-pressure job or unexpected tragedy by resorting to optimism and delusion. Your wildly inaccurate self-evaluations get you through rough times and help motivate you when times are good. Indeed, later research backed up their claims, showing that people who are brutally honest with themselves are not as happy day to day as people with unrealistic assumptions about their abilities. People who take credit for the times when things go their way but who put the blame on others when they stumble or fall are generally happier people.

Your explanatory style exists along a gradient. At one end is a black swamp of unrealistic negative opinions about life and your place in it. At the other end is an overexposed forest of unrealistic positive opinions about how other people see you and your own competence. Right below the midpoint of this spectrum is a place where people see themselves in a harsh yellow light of objectivity. Positive illusions evaporate there, and the family of perceptions mutating off the self-serving bias cannot take root. About 20 percent of all people live in that spot, and psychologists call the state of mind generated by those people depressive realism. If your explanatory style rests in that area of the spectrum, you tend to experience a moderate level of depression more often than not because you are cursed to see the world as a place worthy neither of great dread nor of bounding delight, but just a place. You have a strange superpower— the ability to see the world closer to what it really is. Your more accurate representations of social reality make you feel bad and weird mainly because most people have a reality-distortion module implanted in their heads; sadly, yours is either missing or malfunctioning. The notion of depressed realism has its naysayers, but meta-analysis of the last few decades of research still favors the concept. It also shows that even if you are one of those people who seem to have misplaced their rose-tinted glasses, you can’t eliminate positive illusions entirely. They may shrink up to dehydrated specks and look tiny alongside their giant delusional counterparts inside your most optimistic peers, but they don’t completely disappear. To be a person is to be irrationally positive about your ability to understand and affect the world around you.

Taylor and Brown revealed a new side to the research of well-being, and found that you maintain happiness under the spell of three broad positive illusions: illusory superiority bias, an unrealistically positive view of yourself; the illusion of control, the belief that you have command over the chaos that awaits you every day; and optimism bias, the belief in a future that can’t possibly be as great as you expect it to be. Let’s take a look at these in action, starting with the illusory superiority bias.

Have you ever had the thought while stuffed into an airplane or pressed against strangers on the tube that you are probably the dumbest person in the room? What about at a shopping center near the holidays, people bumping into you, children screaming, long lines of angry shoppers huffing and loudly answering phones using the latest pop music hits to signal incoming calls— in that environment, do you have a gut feeling that you would struggle in a game of Trivial Pursuit with the average shopper? How about opening night of a blockbuster movie? Do you sit in a crowd listening to people having casual conversations about their sister-in-law’s hemorrhoid operation and, upon comparison with the people around you, see yourself as below average in the realms of politeness and consideration?

Imagine in any one of these scenarios that you had every person in the room take an IQ test. Where do you think you would rank compared with others in the group? Near the top? Near the bottom? What if you compared your driving skills with those of everyone else on the road during your typical morning commute? Imagine we created a graph that judged the cooking ability of every person you went to school with on a scale from one to ten. Where do you think you would fall on that scale? Most people put themselves slightly above average, so in this imaginary experiment— unless you know you are a terrible or an excellent cook— you likely thought you were about a six.

The illusory superiority bias allows you to move through airports and cinemas unhindered by the burden of realistic analysis. This is an enchantment generated by the brain that allows you to judge yourself in a light more positive and less harsh than the one you shine on others, and the end result is that you tend to see yourself as unique and apart from the crowd, and you tend to see the crowd as homogeneous and a bit dull. You may even wonder sometimes how everyone around you can be so stupid when it seems so easy to be, you know, smart like you.

Chances are you see yourself as slightly above average in most categories, and way above average in a few. When you compare yourself to an imaginary average person, you see yourself as superior in just about every category. The irony, of course, is that in most airports, tube carriages, cinemas, and shopping centers, the majority of the people squirming inside are thinking the same thing. The research suggests that the average person thinks she is not the average person. She thinks most people are dumb, and that she is not like most people.

The second major positive illusion is the illusion of control.

Studies into its power go back all the way to the beginning of psychology, but the landmark paper was published in 1975. Ellen Langer showed that although you are fully aware of the difference between skill and luck, you have a hard time separating them in retrospect. Langer’s studies had people play betting games. In one, two people sat across from each other. Each chose one card from a shared deck. Each then wagered a small sum of money and turned over his card. The person with the higher-value card won whatever amount he’d bet, but the loser had to pay the money he’d gambled to the researchers. What the subjects didn’t know was that the person they were playing against was an actor instructed to behave timid for some people and confident for others. The timid actor arrived late, pretended to have a twitch, and wore an ill-fitting sports coat. The confident actor was on time, initiated a conversation, wore a fitted coat, and called for the scientists to hurry up and start the study. Who won and lost in the card game was completely random. It was a game of pure chance, yet Langer noted that subjects tended to make larger bets when they believed the other person playing the game was nervous, and they made smaller bets when the other person seemed sure of himself. Even though they knew full well they had no way of knowing what cards would come up, because the game was pure luck, their confidence in their chances of winning changed depending on whether they believed the other person playing was strong or weak. It was as if, with nothing else to go on, they compared their illusion of control with that of the other person and bet cautiously in the presence of someone who seemed more confident in his delusions.

In another study, Langer’s team asked people on their lunch breaks at the Southern New England Telephone Company if they would mind helping in some marketing research on a new product. The people who agreed were then shown into a room housing a bizarre piece of scientific equipment— a large wooden box with parallel metal strips running across the top. The researchers told the subjects that it was a new game, and the object was to guess which of the three metal strips would set off a buzzer when it made contact with a metal pen. They asked one group of subjects to take the metal pen and place it on one of the strips, and then run that pen from one end of the strip to the other. Only one of the strips, the researchers explained, would cause the box to make a sound, and the strip was chosen at random by an apparatus in the box. Another group was told all the same things, but a researcher used the pen to touch the path chosen by the subject, instead of the subjects using the pen themselves. People in both groups were further divided into two subgroups each, one that was allowed to mess around with the box for a few minutes while the scientists pretended to repair the machine, and another that had to choose a strip right away. Langer asked each person right before she picked a metal strip how confident she felt that she would guess the strip that would make the buzzer go off.

The results? The people who had time to play around with the machine and who also got to hold the pen were the most confident. The people who let the researcher do the work and who had to begin immediately felt the least confident. Even though the outcome was completely random, and the subjects were fully aware of the randomness, their confidence differed depending on how much direct contact and previous familiarity they had with the mystery box.

The illusion of control persists like the other positive illusions because you need to feel as though you can push against the world and notice it move. Without that belief, your spirit dwindles quickly, as Langer showed in her later studies in which permanent residents of nursing homes tended to live shorter lives and develop more illnesses when they were no longer allowed to choose their activities or arrange furniture to their liking.

The third great positive illusion is optimism bias, the mental construct that provides smokers the belief they’ll be among those who escape cancer, motorists the confidence they can speed during rainstorms, couples the certainty they will die hand in hand behind a white picket fence, and immigrants the beamish tenacity to open a new business in a down economy. No matter the statistical odds, no matter how many examples to the contrary you’ve seen in your life, you have a tendency to believe everything will work out in the end, and it is hard to argue with this approach to life when you consider the alternative. The bias, however, disappears when you observe others. You believe your heart will stay strong until you are in your nineties, but that your cousin who buys chicken-fried steaks in bulk is headed for an early grave. The bias also prevents you from buying a fire extinguisher for your kitchen, or going to get a regular checkup. Your optimism bias keeps you looking to the horizon with growing expectation and glee. As psychologist Tali Sharot says, research shows you prefer Friday more than Sunday because Fridays are filled with optimistic daydreams about what may come, and Sundays are filled with the constant unwanted encroachment of realistic expectations of what is going to happen on Monday. In one of her studies, she asked people to say how likely they felt it was that they would get cancer. She then explained that science suggests that their chance of getting cancer over their lifetime was about 30 percent. People who guessed higher than 30 percent initially and then heard the truth dropped their estimates to something close to the average. People who guessed lower than 30 percent and then heard the realistic estimate barely raised their assumed chances at all. This, according to Sharot, is why warning labels and government adverts rarely work on you. The odds, you think, are always in your favor. The labels are for other people.

These three positive illusions require constant upkeep. You hold them together with three supporting delusions called confirmation bias, hindsight bias, and self-serving bias. They serve as a sort of pump plugged into your consciousness that constantly pushes away negativity and sucks in positive thoughts. Not everyone has a fully functional pump, but most do. If yours is working properly, it churns day and night, helping you survive a world determined to prove you are not as awesome as you think you are.

Confirmation bias, something you’ve seen mentioned several times in this book, is the tendency to notice and remember when information and events match your expectations and confirm your beliefs, but to ignore and forget when the world challenges your preconceived notions. It is why streetlights always seem to flicker when you walk under them, or why it seems to rain every time you wash your car, or why your friend with the tickets always seems late. The truth is that you only notice when the streetlight flickers, when it rains after a wash, and when your flakey friend keeps you waiting. When those things don’t happen they become what psychologists call nonevents. Nonevents are a waste of attention and memory, so they don’t stick. If you never look for disconfirmation of your beliefs, especially the ones that make you feel special and above average, you can proceed unchallenged and deluded.

When you are presented with new information or an outcome you could not possibly have foretold, you have a tendency to look back on your memories and assume that, back before you knew what was going to happen, you accurately predicted what has just now unfolded. That’s your hindsight bias at work, making you constantly feel like you knew what was going to happen all along. You might never know about this bias unless you catch yourself in the act in a diary or some old text message. It makes the past seem inevitable, and causes you to believe the future is predictable. Yet predictions of the future are monumentally terrible. Just look at old science fiction movies. From flying cars to cities on the moon, science fiction movies rarely get the future right. There is no Internet on Star Trek, no smartphones in Blade Runner. Your brain is just as bad as any science fiction movie when it comes to predicting your own future. The difference is that movies leave behind a perfect record of their failure. You don’t.

When things are going your way, you have no problem calling attention to your own contributions to good fortune. If you win a game, or get promoted, or make an excellent grade, you tend to attribute that success to your skills, talent, effort, and preparation. If you fail, though, or get passed over, you have a habit of looking for something outside yourself to blame— a mean boss, a crappy team, a confusing teacher— whatever it takes to keep yourself from blame. This self-serving bias provides you with credit for all the things in life that worked out in your favor, and it absolves you of responsibility for those times you fell short. The self-serving bias makes it difficult for you to acknowledge the help of others, or luck, or an unfair advantage. It isn’t a malicious defect of your personality; it’s just your brain’s way of framing things so that you don’t stop moving forward. If you fail the tests that would have made you a doctor, lawyer, engineer, or dog groomer, you protect your ego by noticing all the factors in between you and your goals. That way, you can try again with the gumption and certainty required to accomplish such difficult objectives.

The positive illusions and their helpers form a supercluster of delusion that thumps in the psyche of every human. Together, illusory superiority bias, the illusion of control, optimism bias, confirmation bias, hindsight bias, and self-serving bias combine like Voltron into a mental chimera called self-enhancement bias. It works just as the name suggests— it enhances your view of your self. If you drive, you probably see yourself as a competent, considerate, skillful driver, especially compared with the morons and assholes you face on the road on a daily basis. If you are like the typical subject, you believe you are slightly more attractive than the average person, a bit smarter, a smidgen better at solving puzzles and figuring out riddles, a better listener, a cut above when it comes to leadership skills, in possession of paramount moral fiber, more interesting than the people passing you on the street, and on and on it goes.

A report in 2010 published in the British Journal of Social Psychology suggests that you even see yourself as more human than other people. The findings predict that no matter what country you come from, no matter your culture, if aliens chose you to represent the entire species as Earth’s ambassador, you would feel as though you could fulfill that role better than most. When asked, most people said they exhibited the traits that make humans unique in the animal kingdom more than the average person. In 2010, UCLA researchers conducted a survey of more than 25,000 people ages 18– 75 and found that the majority rated their own attractiveness as about a seven out of ten. This suggests that the average person thinks he is a little better looking than the average person. About a third of the people under 30 rated themselves as somewhere around a nine. That sort of confidence is fun to think about considering that it is impossible for everyone to be better-looking than half the population. A survey conducted by American Viewpoint in 2010 showed that 80 percent of American parents believe childhood obesity is a growing problem, but 84 percent of those same Americans said their own children were at a healthy weight, even though the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that about a third of all U.S. children are obese. When psychologists asked professors at the University of Nebraska to rate their own teaching abilities, 94 percent said they were better than the average teacher.

You don’t have to be a mathematician to see a major problem here. Every person’s assumptions about being above average can’t be true. There can’t be an average unless some people sit in the middle of a bell curve and others fall to either side. Statistically speaking, if you had a perfect measure of your abilities you would see that you fall into the average category for most things, but you have a very hard time believing this is true.

In 1998, psychologist Joachim Krueger and his colleagues asked a group of subjects to take a look at a list of adjectives. The words described personality types: words such as domineering, outspoken, nervous, and intellectual. The subjects then rated how accurately they believed those words described them, and how accurately the words described an average person. For example, think of the word perfectionist. On a scale from one to ten, how much of a perfectionist do you think you are? Now, on a scale from one to ten, rate an imaginary average human being the same age and gender as you. The next part of the study then asked the same people to rate those traits on a scale of desirability, with one being a quality society generally shunned and nine being something everyone should aspire to add to his or her charms. Consider your answer. Now, how would you rate perfectionism on a scale of desirability? Most of the subjects in the study rated the traits they believed they possessed as the sort of traits society values most. The traits they believed the average person possessed were rated as the least desirable. If you believe you are more of a perfectionist than the average person, you also tend to believe that society loves sticklers more than it does people without strict standards. On the other hand, if you despise people who believe there is such a thing as absolute control, and prefer a loose and free approach to solving problems, that’s the sort of trait you assume the rest of the world admires.

Not only do you see yourself as above average, but you also see the ways in which you exceed the average person as being the best attributes of humanity. According to Krueger, one of your most reliable strategies for pumping up your sense of self-worth is simply to alter the way you see your own traits. If you transform your traits into virtues and the traits of the average person into vices, you can step out of the door sparkling and beautiful with no need for change. That effect can be reduced, though, as the experimenters in the study discovered. When they asked subjects to put themselves in other people’s shoes and think about how individuals with dissimilar personality traits might rate themselves and others, a small epiphany routinely sparked, and the tendency to be biased toward self-enhancement diminished. As with most biases, all it took was a pause for reflection to trump the default settings of the mind.

So, why is it, then, that you so rarely pause to reflect? What keeps the self-enhancement bias and all its positive illusions thriving in your mind? Why would such an obviously impossible set of beliefs persist in the heads of just about every conscious person?

Scientists can’t say for sure why these biases and illusions about how awesome you are exist, but most speculation on the issue suggests that for something like this to be so ubiquitous among human minds, it must have served an adaptive purpose in your ancestors. As your ability to think and reason evolved, you also developed the power to obfuscate the truth lest you see through the illusions of life and became despondent. Your ancestors slept on dirt and were pummeled like Rocky Balboa minute by minute with a steady flow of harassment from an unforgiving and indifferent world. Nature never gave up, and it makes sense that your species developed mechanisms to ensure you couldn’t be kept down.

Some researchers have posited that the overconfident invaders of the jungles and savannah may have been so bold and intimidating that when they charged into the camps of their enemies, they tended to do better than the more timid and shy among them. There are psychologists who believe that morale is nothing more than a cluster of positive illusions; and morale is generally considered more important in combat than anything else. Confidence in battle and in courtship is certainly an important starting point for understanding where self-enhancement bias came from. These, though, may just be variations on a more fundamental truth. The general speculation is that over the last few million years, the primates who survived long enough to become your grandparents were the ones who didn’t give up when all hope was lost.

In a 2011 article published in Nature by Dominic Johnson and James Fowler, the two social scientists presented compelling speculation as to how positive illusions may have formed and why they continue to persist. They contend that, in the long run, over the course of most of human history, in the situations people would have often faced before the modern age, overconfidence fed a suite of other traits that have kept humans from fading into the fossil record. Traits such as ambition, resolve, and group morale pushed human beings to cross oceans and tame crops. When the wind crushed those ships to splinters against impartial rocks, and those crops withered under an unsympathetic sun, your ancestors’ positive illusions kicked in, biasing the downtrodden to see things in such a way that led to persistence, no matter how futile it must have seemed at times.

Johnson and Fowler point out that your potential ancestors who led lives based on realistic expectations didn’t survive. Positive illusions must have been a better alternative. They speculated that early humans competed with one another for resources, and if both parties were completely honest about themselves and their opponents, they could just glance at the other person, correctly estimate who would win in a dispute, and then yield without any confrontation.

Imagine you want access to a watering hole, but a nasty person arrives at this place at the same time as you and refuses to share. This person looks like he might be a bit stronger than you, but you can’t be sure. He might be bluffing. If you are totally honest with yourself, you’ll walk away, and thus possibly remove yourself from the gene pool. If, instead, you feel slightly overconfident given what you know about the other person, you might stand your ground, or go for some sort of bluff yourself. When Johnson and Fowler plugged these strategies into a computer program and had simulated opponents face off in a struggle for limited resources, they found that, over several thousand generations, those who were slightly overconfident started to outperform those with other evaluations of themselves. As long as the reward was worth fighting for, and both sides were naive about what they were up against, overconfidence won. Those who routinely overestimated their abilities never turned away from disputes in which it seemed like a toss-up as to who could win, and they sometimes won even when they were the underdog because the other party didn’t call their unwitting bluff. The more uncertain the computer opponents were, the more advantageous it became to be overconfident.

You have the capacity to rationally judge the risks and benefits, the costs and rewards, of complex systems, but in a pinch you can fall back on a simple and reliable shortcut: just be slightly and blindly overconfident. The best bluff, it turns out, is the one in which even the bluffer is unaware of the cards he is holding. If you could accurately assess the odds against you— whether those odds took the shape of a hunting expedition, a one-on-one fight, or the job market for philosophy majors— you would probably turn away from the struggle more often than not. There is always plenty of evidence that the odds are not in your favor, enough to deter you from trying just about everything in life. Luckily for you, most of the time you have no idea what you are getting into, and you greatly overestimate your chances for success. It makes sense that primates like you would have evolved a fondness for delusions of grandeur. That’s the sort of attitude that gets you out of caves and beds. The relentless bombardment of challenges and tribulations makes it very difficult to be a person, whether you must fend off rabid beavers or ravenous debt collectors. Those who tried just a few percentage points harder, who persevered just a smidge longer, defeated nature more often than the realists. You’ve inherited a tendency to thrash against the odds, to be optimistic in the face of futility.

On average, positive illusions work, but left unchecked, they can lead to terrible decisions and policies. Overconfidence is a powerful tool to drive behaviors and encourage perseverance against strife and uncertainty in both your personal life and in the lives of nations and institutions. Occasionally, though, that same emotional state can mutate into hubris and blind ambition. History is littered with the bodies, both real and metaphorical, of self-enhancement biases. The same irrational, unrealistic overconfidence swimming in your nervous system can be disastrous should you find yourself leading millions or tending to their investments.

Your evolved response is to allow your brain to trick you into doing what maximizes fitness in your species, even though that benefit shows up only over the course of millions of lifetimes. In an isolated instance, in a specific situation, overconfidence may not be the best state of mind, and the behaviors that spring from that sort of reality assessment may not be the best actions in the great multiple-choice exam of life. When you dissolve that situation into the billions that humans faced over their journey into modernity, though, it averages out to be the preferred route to just about every destination. In short, your brain fiddles with your emotions to get you to do what usually works by suggesting that you are more awesome than you actually are, even in scenarios in which that would be a terrible mistake. Sometimes you pause, think, and reject the suggestion. Sometimes you don’t. As some experts have pointed out, this general strategy matured among small societies without the ability to prevent or cause great harm. Modern society is large and complex, with institutions wielding great power over the lives of many. This is why Johnson and Fowler added a dire parting shot in their predictions. Since you are programmed to become increasingly overconfident the less you understand about any given scenario, you can expect to find the most destructive overconfidence in places that are exceedingly complicated and unpredictable. Their examples include governments, wars, financial markets, and natural disasters.

If you want to see positive illusions causing harm in a more domestic realm, look no further than social media. Services such as Twitter and Facebook magnify the scope of natural tendencies. You use social media to adapt social norms to the new levels of expression just as people did when it became possible to see cities they would never visit or talk over wires with people they would never meet. The desire to boost your self-esteem through positive illusions is one of the most obvious and ubiquitous elements of the social media landscape. In those worlds, you choose what to show other people and what to censor.

Heavy social media use skews strongly toward younger people at the moment, although there are people of every age managing a public persona through online media, status updates, and eternally malleable profiles. For some, that world makes them feel like stars of small-scale reality programming. If you have younger friends and relatives in your update streams, you’ve probably noticed their overactive urge to duckface, turn up the contrast, and shoot their faces with cameras awkwardly perched somewhere behind their heads. It’s all about self-esteem, and the drive to maintain high self-esteem can lead to strange choices.

For instance, imagine you are walking in a park, admiring the song of an unseen bird while watching light dance on a lake across the peaks of wind-pushed ripples, when you notice out of the corner of your eye a coppery lamp lying on its side. You pick it up, realizing instantly that this is not some ornate crack pipe— no, this is an object of quality and value. A little polish and maybe this thing will . . . whoa! As you buff it with the cuff of your sleeve, a vortex of magical dust and vapor surrounds you, and out of the fractalized tendrils of smoke a blue-skinned, legless djinni comes forth grinning and smelling of fresh-baked brownies.

The djinni offers you a reward for freeing him from the lamp through your concentrated scrubbing. Unfortunately, he’s just a multiple-choice wish granter, and says you may choose only one item among four choices: an extra paycheck;obligation-free fantasy sex with the partner of your choice; a gourmet meal comprised of as many delights as you can imagine; or a nice, heartfelt compliment. What would you choose? A version of these choices appeared in a psychological study conducted by Brad Bushman, Scott Moeller, and Jennifer Crocker published in 2010. As part of a series of experiments exploring self-esteem, they asked university students to rate a variety of things the average person desires— food, sex, money, friendship, compliments— and asked the subjects to say how strongly they wanted those things and how much they tended to like them. The clear winner? Compliments. In studies of secondary school and university-age people, boosts to self-esteem were found to be usually more attractive and beguiling than the sort of things older people see as proper rewards. When you ask a person in the first quarter of her life what she would rather have— sex, pizza, or a positive comment about her— the majority of people tend to go for the kind words, even if the subject had not enjoyed the other options in a very long time. The same researchers found in another study that this tendency to prefer boosts to self-esteem over other rewards diminishes over time, but it doesn’t completely go away.

Some researchers, such as psychologist Jean Twenge, say this new world where compliments are better than sex and pizza, in which the self-enhancing bias has been unchained and allowed to gorge unfettered, has led to a new normal in which the positive illusions of several generations have now mutated into full-blown narcissism. In her book The Narcissism Epidemic, Twenge says her research shows that since the mid-1980s, clinically defined narcissism rates in the United States have increased in the population at the same rate as obesity. She used the same test used by psychiatrists to test for narcissism in patients and found that, in 2006, one in four U.S. university students tested positive. That’s real narcissism, the kind that leads to diagnoses of personality disorders. In her estimation, this is a dangerous trend, and it shows signs of acceleration. Narcissistic overconfidence crosses a line, says Twenge, and taints those things improved by a skosh of confidence. Over that line, you become less concerned with the well-being of others, more materialistic, and obsessed with status in addition to losing all the restraint normally preventing you from tragically overestimating your ability to manage or even survive risky situations. In her book, Twenge connects this trend to the housing market crash of the mid-2000s and the stark increase in reality programming during that same decade. According to Twenge, the drive to be famous for nothing went from being strange to predictable thanks to a generation or two of people raised by parents who artificially boosted self-esteem to ’roidtastic levels and then released them into a culture filled with new technologies that emerged right when those people needed them most to prop up their self-enhancement biases. By the time Twenge’s research was published, reality programming had spent twenty years perfecting itself, and the modern stars of those shows represent a tiny portion of the population who not only want to be on those shows, but who also know what they are getting into and still want to participate. Producers with the experience to know who will provide the best television entertainment to millions then cull that small group. The result is a new generation of celebrities with positive illusions so robust and potent that the narcissistic overconfidence of the modern American teenager by comparison is now much easier to see as normal.

The desire to see yourself as better than average and more competent, skilled, intelligent, and beautiful than you truly are is likely embedded in your psyche as a by-product of millions of years of forging ahead against the same odds of survival that have erased 99 percent of all species that once roamed this planet. Still, that overconfidence gets tempered by a number of things following your birth.

Life experience, of course, can enhance or suppress those feelings. Your parents’ choices in how they styled your upbringing are major factors as well. Your generational attitudes drastically affect the way you go about self-enhancing. A girl raised in an orphanage in 1850, for instance, would probably use different aspects of life to judge her self-esteem than a girl brought up in 2012 competing in gymnastic sports. Aside from all these factors, the culture in which you develop and grow exerts tremendous influence. In the late twentieth-century United States, individuality and self-reliance was instilled in most citizens, while in Japan most people were encouraged to consider their interdependence and community ties. Cross-cultural studies by psychologists Hazel Markus and Shinobu Kitayama in the 1990s showed that many Asian cultures actively suppress the urge to self-enhance. As they put it, the Western concept of “the squeaky wheel gets the grease” is seen in Eastern cultures as “the nail that stands out gets pounded down.” American self-help techniques, they point out, ask people to do things such as look in the mirror and say, “I am beautiful,” one hundred times before leaving the house, while in Japan, workers gladly do things such as hold hands and tell coworkers that they are beautiful. Markus and Kitayama point out that in such a culture, people tend to become more confident after subsequent failures than they do following easy, first-time successes. Self-esteem comes from fitting in and contributing to the well-being of the whole. A person in such a culture, they say, doesn’t feel the gut punch of disappointment if their personal accomplishments never set them apart or don’t generate individual praise or fame. Disapproval in the eyes of others is given much more weight than praise, because praise is less reliable, less likely to be honest. As Markus and Kitayama put it, “Those with interdependent selves will typically not claim they are better than others” and will feel icky if a sense of superiority does waft into their heads. You’ve probably noticed shades of Eastern attitudes in Western cultures. Subcultures and political camps will often laud the sort of sensibility that leads to drum circles and communal ownership and that coincides with a sense of diminished self-enhancement and more focus on interdependence. People in those subcultures may even adopt some of the philosophical and religious views of Asian societies. Likewise, opposing camps offer an alternative view, admiring individuality and personal liberty to a degree that stimulates feelings of self-enhancement in a far more magnified way.

A century of experimental data points to a central fact about your day-to-day experience and behavior: You are deeply invested in self-confidence. The higher your baseline self-esteem, the more protective you become of it. It waxes and wanes throughout your day and throughout your life, but a general feeling of being able to take on the world keeps you going. You feel effective. You feel you have some sort of control over your environment. You feel as though you have choices, and those choices can make your life better. Psychologists call that sense of control over your destiny self-efficacy. The famous psychologist B. F. Skinner said that your core personality developed around tiny science experiments you conducted throughout childhood. He saw a pattern in behavior he called responses and reinforcers. Imagine, as a kid, that you played around on a piano during a holiday party one year and everyone came into the room to listen, and then everyone clapped and laughed and praised you. Skinner said that added some points to your feelings of efficacy. You might try that again in a similar situation in the future, and if it worked again, you would add it to your bag of tricks for getting attention. Over time, he believed, you learn that a wide variety of situations and behaviors will get you attention and praise or some other reward, and you begin to position yourself to always be in situations that allow for such an exchange with the outside world. You build a sense of self-confidence around those actions and situations you can be fairly certain will provide you a return or, as he put it, a reinforcer. This is why, he said, you decide to skip some gatherings and attend others. This is why you become fast friends with some people, and others turn you off within seconds. You tend to protect a bubble you’ve created and nurtured your entire life, a bubble of positive illusions that make you feel good about yourself. Those good feelings bleed into your sense of control and your general attitude when facing unfamiliar problems. Self-esteem and self-efficacy work together to get you out of bed in the morning and keep you going back for more punishment from the unforgiving world.

The studies into self-enhancement show that there is no one set level of confidence in all human beings. Instead, people make a wide variety of nuanced and complex assumptions about their abilities and self-worth. As with most aspects of the mind, there is a spectrum out there in the real world, and you fall somewhere along it, but when you take humanity as a whole and average out the temperaments, most people rate themselves a tad bit above average. Chances are, you do the same thing when it comes to the more nebulous and desirable aspects of the self, whatever you believe those aspects to be. Your opinions on what makes for an above-average, covetable persona are deeply influenced by your culture and the era in which you live, but the factory settings in your comparison-to-other-people introspection module seem to be set slightly above the midpoint. Knowing this, you can predict how you and others will attack difficult and convoluted issues, and maybe you can come to less-dumb conclusions and develop thoroughly non-dumb plans of action. Know that the people who do beat all the odds, who do persevere after being knocked down over and over again, end up being the only people left to compare yourself against. They are the people who tell inspirational stories of overcoming great odds and never giving in to doubt. The other people, the ones who tried and failed, the ones who make up the true majority— they don’t get invited to speak at university graduations.

This mass of delusions was a useful evolutionary trick for your people. It is difficult to be a person hurtling through space on a hostile rock with only a handful of friends. It is hard even if you are fortunate enough to live in a wealthy, educated, industrialized nation in the twenty-first century and be born into a family who lives above the poverty line. In such a place, you live like a king compared with billions of less fortunate people. If you are living in such a wonderful place, think about all the complaining and sadness you’ve felt and witnessed. The gulf between what you want and what you have, the sudden loss of a loved one, the yearning for love and the pining for it when unrequited— no matter how good you’ve got it, you are no stranger to tears. Obviously, owning a brain is not easy. It is a testament to the weirdness of our pursuit of happiness and fulfillment to realize how well we get by in the face of so much strife— real or imagined. Self-enhancement bias and all its positive illusions temper the trials and tribulations of many people on this planet struggling with poverty and war, hunger and disease. In Phnom Penh and in Calcutta, a series of rubbish heaps stretch out like low mountain ranges, and every day, large crowds of children gather to pick at the fresh rubbish as it spills from the back of giant trucks. The children scavenge all day, often barefoot, choking in the haze generated by nearby fires. There are places where, right now, people go to work every day worried about sniper fire and suicide bombers. In many places, the water runs brown and meals are not guaranteed.

Throughout human history there have been periods in which people bore tremendous burdens and slogged through what seemed like insurmountable misery. From concentration camps to death marches, to plagues and wars, people who share the same basic mind as you have suffered and survived horrific events. Likewise, you share something amazing with those who live daily under the yoke of terrible oppression. Should you be plucked from your cozy place in this world and assume their plight, should your will be tested at the intensity of so many before you, one constant is sure: You will be resilient. You won’t give up.


David McRaney. You Can Beat Your Brain. Gotham Books (a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.), 2013.

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